15 Lessons Money Diarists Learned After Tracking Their Spending

One diarist, a 29-year-old executive assistant in New York City making $112,000 used her Money Diary to find places to cut back.

Every Monday, we take a deeper dive into the Money Diaries community. We started by rounding up some of our favorite comments. Later, we asked all of you whom you like (or don't like) to talk to about money. Today, we're sharing lessons that past diarists have learned after tracking their spending.

While we aren't able to publish every Money Diary that gets submitted — which means that not all of the following What I Learned submissions come from published diaries — we do hope that the exercise of keeping such a journal is helpful. Here's what a handful of diarists and Money Diaries community members have to say about the experience.

One of our highest-earning Money Diarists, a 34-year-old executive director working in finance in Los Angeles, wrote about seeing her family's spending in a new light.

"I learned a lot from my Money Diary. I know I make a lot of money, but I had a secret pride that we don't spend like we do. Well, that is not exactly true. The amount of money we spent eating was absurd. I realize that I don't even look at prices when I go to a restaurant. $180 for sushi on a Tuesday? Come on. That is crazy. We could've easily had a great sushi dinner out in L.A. for half that price.

"I think some small changes and cooking a little more could help us save even more money. That is always hard with two working parents, a toddler, and a kid on the way. I still enjoy going out, but I realize we end up being wasteful, too. I think I may keep up the diary so we can be more mindful of how we spend."

This diarist, a 30-year-old manager in Chicago, IL, reflected on writing a Money Diary in the midst of a difficult personal time — and how it helped her see the good in her life.

"I'm currently going through [the] breakup of a long-term relationship. There are many times throughout the day I don't feel great about myself or my situation. Doing this diary helped me realize I have so much to be grateful for, and that I have accomplished a lot financially, professionally, and personally in my 30 years.

"... And the fact that I mainly spend money on food :)"

One of our World Teachers' Day Money Diarists, a 26-year-old part-time library assistant and part-time assistant preschool teacher in Portland, OR, said she wished she spent more money on enjoyable pursuits.

"I learned so much by tracking my spending for a week. As good as I am with saving money and staying out of debt, I spend much more than I realize on things I don't need, like food and coffee. I wish I spent more on entertainment simply because I sometimes feel like a recluse due to the amount of work I have, and put on myself.

"Moving has also been a crazy experience. I thought that moving from California to Oregon would cut my costs, but it hasn't. Certain things are cheaper in Oregon, but others are more expensive. I make less money too, because back in California, I was higher up in the library food chain.

"Overall, Portland has a much simpler and calmer vibe, and I moved here for my sanity. I am determined to get my money in order so I can live the life I want. And the best way to do that is to stay motivated by reading self-improvement and financial health books, staying positive, and working hard."

Back in March, one of our diarists, a finance VP in New York City, drummed up a lot of conversation after readers learned of her high income and spending habits. Here’s what she had to say:

“I had no idea [my diary] was going to cause such a shit storm. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised; most of the comments were very nice.

“I learned a LOT. I am the kind of person who (oddly, [considering] my line of business) wants to avoid really tallying up what I’m doing. I always review my credit card charges and I think I’m pretty responsible for the most part. I [tend to] spend frugally day-to-day, but will save up and be happy to spend on something like a vacation or a new handbag. I care a lot more about the big-ticket items than buying coffee every day. (BTW, I went back and ordered that sofa from ABC Home! It cost just under $2,000, but I expect to keep it for at least five years. I am a trader; I like to invest.)”

“One place where I could definitely be saving is grocery stores! I tend to go every two or three weeks because, honestly I just hate doing it. Then, when I go, I wander around aimlessly and pick out random things. I enjoy cooking, but there’s only so many vegetables you can eat as a single person in a week before they go bad and you have to throw them out! I think I will work on either going more often or making a list.

“With regards to the comments on my charity spending, I spend about $3,000 a year on various charities. The form asked for monthly expenses, not yearly ones, so I was just following instructions. I had no idea that’s what people would focus on, especially considering I spend quite a bit on causes that matter to me. Also, taxes are nuts! Something like 30 percent to 40 percent of my headline income goes to taxes. Especially in Manhattan, you get dinged three time — federal, state and city. I work on commission, so it’s hard to budget. But I’m not complaining, I am in a high-income bracket — so I have very high tax rates.

“I think I have a healthy relationship with debt, which is something I’ve learned from reading a lot of these Money Diaries. Credit scores are SO important! I was really fortunate to have parents who made me get a credit card when I was in middle school (!!) and pay it down. I’ve had a credit score for almost 15 years! I have friends who just got a credit card last year.

“There were a few comments about privilege that, honestly, I expected. I went to public school until I went to a top-notch university; it was private and crazy expensive. But my parents grew up very poor and have managed to do some incredible things. This will probably make me sound even more frivolous (I already got nailed for spending $100 on a single candle!), but my parents knew the kind of lifestyle I wanted to live from a young age. They’ve been very open in telling me, Hey, if you want that $5 million townhouse, you’re going to need to make a lot of money. Here are the career paths you can take. They really pushed me into finance because they knew this was the career path I’d need to take to make the kind of money I want.

“I think this is a message that gets lost on a lot of people. If you want to go be a humanitarian or work for a nonprofit, that’s great — but it comes with a different financial picture. For me, this was more important. I am fully aware that my job is loathed by some, but it’s the choice I made to live the kind of lifestyle I want. I’ve also been lucky to have parents who understood how much they could help. I’ll confess that I originally wanted to be a doctor! This would have also, eventually, yielded the kind of income I’d need to live the life I want, but my parents sat me down and said, ‘Look: We can’t pay for medical school. How long and how much debt do you want to be in?’ It’s all about payoffs.

“I am really glad I wrote this because I’ve never actually itemized the things I’ve done. And I am happy, overall, with the responses I’ve gotten. I hope that women — or people — reading this got something out of it as well.”

Another diarist, a 28-year-old marketing manager in Vancouver, BC, Canada, makes $58,500. She expressed confidence in her ability to enjoy life in the short-term, but also voiced some longer-term concerns after tracking her expenses.

"I can afford to live quite comfortably in what's known as the city with the highest cost of living here in Canada. That said, [because of] a comfortable lifestyle and frequent travels, I haven't been able to put as much money away for a house, or a wedding, or a rainy day. I want to be able to shed light on the common issue that's facing a lot of the working class here in Vancouver, and that is the balance and struggle of enjoying your life while building your future.

"Filling out the Money Diary was a huge eye opener because you don't realize that even the simplest items are a luxury. It was also a pretty heavy spending week for me; I usually don't spend that much on make-up or clothes. This week showed me that it's not only the larger shopping totals that are a detriment to your savings, but it's also the paying for everyone's movie and not getting paid back. It's the unnecessary dessert after dinner. It's the coffee for two every morning. This was a very helpful exercise to shed light on the changes I need to make for the future."

One diarist, a 29-year-old executive assistant in New York City making $112,000 used her Money Diary to find places to cut back.

“I wanted to keep my own [Money Diary] because I know I spend WAY too much on food and drink, and ‘treat’ myself on clothing more often than not. Both have led to tremendous amounts of credit card debt. In the past year, I was laid off before landing a new [job] with a major raise. With that [money], I am paying off said cards while trying to save as much as possible. I also realize that I don’t donate to charity (time or money) nearly as much as I would like to, so I plan to increase that as well.”

One diarist, a 29-year-old school counselor in Richmond, Virginia, said that she learned to be less afraid of money.

"I realized that I hate spending money and I'm constantly trying to stay on a budget that doesn't exist in reality. I need to stop being afraid to spend money on myself. That's not exactly the moral I thought I'd get out of this week, but self-actualization is good, too."

Another diarist, a 27-year-old office manager in Bellingham, Washington, wrote about learning what to prioritize as she and her husband begin raising children. This diarist works in the field of biotechnology and makes $44,000; her husband's salary is $55,000. Here's what she had to say:

"After submitting my Money Diary and looking back at all my notes, I noticed that I have been spending a lot more [money] than normal now that my husband and I are preparing for kids to enter our home. Some of it was in preparation — whether it be toys, furniture, or equipment — but we also spent a lot of afternoons and evenings out. Unexpected purchases are bound to happen when you expand your family, especially in our case, with regard to adoption. Not only are there agency fees, but we will also have lawyer fees in the future.

"Moving forward, especially when we are settled with kids, it will be important to remember that saving is so important. Something I'm still trying to learn is that you may not always need the most extravagant items. I want to make sure we have healthy savings while still providing a fun and exciting life for our little family. I think the key to all of this is to find the right balance for you and those you share your life with."

This diarist from May, a multimedia senior manager in New York City making roughly $75,500 per year, reflected on her work to pay down debt while still enjoying life:

“I’ve been tracking my spending for about six months, [a period in which] I realized I needed to consolidate my $16,500 credit card debt. Through a lack of financial oversight and acumen, serious illness, and high/compounding interest rates, I racked up a severe amount of debt in a short period of time (about 4 years). I realized I have to be much more prudent about credit and pay my balance in full each month — if I ever use credit again. For now, and the foreseeable future, I’ve been credit-free.

“The main thing I learned while tracking my expenses is that despite increased budgeting and awareness, I still am an impulse-spender, especially when it comes to things like groceries, gifts and non-essential personal items like records. I think I need to be more aware of that and employ more self-discipline to stay on track, while also allowing for a fun purchase here and there.”

Another diarist, a 27-year-old office manager in Garden City, Kansas, wrote about how it feels to make $12,000 per year.

"While doing my Money Diary, I felt really awkward about how little I made; my poverty and art degree provide plenty of fodder for internet trolls. I know it's my fault for getting a useless degree, so thanks. It is hard to write a diary about what I spend when I don't have much money to spend — and definitely not on anything exciting.

There are many circumstances that led to me returning home and taking a part-time job. I had to constantly remind myself that this is a temporary pit stop in my life. I often feel guilty spending money on anything that isn't gas, bills, or food, and that's something I want to work on. Nobody should beat themselves up over spending $4 on a water bottle.

"I already have nearly a year's worth of my earning in savings, so I know I can't save much more without making more. On the bright side, the diary kept me motivated. I am working on my résumé for a full-time position where I can live with my boyfriend and not have to commute."

This diarist, a 28-year-old higher-education coordinator in the Metro Detroit Area making $45,000 per year wrote about how her schedule impacts her finances. She realized that operating within time crunches results in her spending more than she and her husband would like to.

"My husband and I have known that we spend a lot on food, but we both love cooking and eating out. This was a week where my schedule allowed me to be home every evening, so I tried to cook at home more, and didn't go to Starbucks as often as I typically would for breakfast.

"Tracking made me recognize how little of our income is going towards saving and investing, so we will be setting up IRAs ASAP. We are also not doing a good job of managing our mornings. Neither of us likes to wake up earlier than we have to. However, hanging onto our old habits while managing our son in the morning presents time management issues that lead us to overspend out of convenience."

One recent diarist, a project manager in Seattle, Washington, realized that she’s doing better in some areas than she realized.

“I learned that I don’t spend as much on food as I thought I did, [but] I found I was spending way too much on coffee and transportation. I’m okay with paying over 50 percent of my income toward my living expenses, but I could definitely buy coffee out less and use [fewer] car shares (which I’ve come to rely on).”

One diarist, a 30-year-old public health advisor in Washington, D.C. making $77,490 per year said she learned to pull back her spending on other people.

"I learned that I spend a lot of money in service of other people (buying coffee/tea, hosting parties, donating to fundraisers, buying from friend's small businesses), and that I rationalize some of the beauty and clothing spending that I do, saying that I 'need' everything."

One of our intern diarists, a junior fellow working in Washington, D.C. making $15 per hour this summer, said the experience showed her ways to improve what she is already doing.

"I learned a great deal writing a Money Diary," she wrote. "I am normally really conscious of my spending, but writing everything down made me realize just where my money is going. It was a valuable experience and showed me that although I think I am a frugal spender, there are still ways to cut down on costs, such as watching what I spend on the weekends, as well as during the week."

One Money Diaries submitter, a 28-year-old marketing specialist making $55,000 in Portland Maine, said that she sometimes uses her thriftiness on eating out as an excuse to go all out at the supermarket.

“I learned that I should just direct-deposit my paycheck to Trader Joe’s. Kidding aside, I realized that I’m very careful with my spending aside from food and drinks, and I make a big effort not to eat out or order takeout, which really helps me stay on track. That said, I also realized that I sometimes use the fact that I cook up to 95 percent of my meals to justify a sometimes-bloated grocery budget. Give and take, I guess.”

By: Judith Ohikuare